Microsoft Takes Windows Azure to the Feds

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2009-12-09

Microsoft Takes Windows Azure to the Feds

WASHINGTON-Microsoft's "Software + Services" strategy-delivering bits to customers in a variety of ways, from on-premises software to full-blown public and private cloud services-is nowhere more evident than in the company's approach to the federal sector.

Perhaps it is because of federal rules, regulations, procurement policies and whatnot, but in the federal sector, Microsoft's strategy, which many have criticized as blurry if not over-hyped, becomes as clear as a cloudless day.

At a FedScoop Cloud Computing Shoot Out here on Dec. 8, Susie Adams, Microsoft's CTO for the federal sector, and Yousef Khalidi, a Microsoft distinguished engineer and member of the founding team that created the core of Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud platform, helped deliver some of that clarity.

In back-to-back conversations with eWEEK, Adams and Khalidi laid out the Microsoft plan to deliver software across the "full spectrum," from on-premises IT to the cloud-including private cloudlike environments-and to take the lessons learned in doing so and parlay those back into the product and services lines.

"We're taking our learnings from the process of building Azure and putting that back into the Windows Server product and our other technology," Khalidi said.

Moreover, "We fundamentally don't believe that private clouds are going to go away," Adams said, noting that certain agencies with sensitive information and workloads will never want to see that stuff in a public cloud environment.

Although Windows Azure is a public cloud technology, "We have dedicated offerings-dedicated clouds [if you will]," Adams said. This consists of a dedicated network pipe, computing services that Microsoft runs, and the customer "manages who gets access and we run it for them."

This dedicated model has been around in the federal space for about two years, Adams said. Meanwhile, Windows Azure has been around as a technology preview for a year, "and we have several federal customers using it in preview mode," she said.

A Windows Azure appliance?

But what will Microsoft do to deliver Windows Azure for private cloud environments?

"I can tell you what we won't be doing. We have not announced an Azure appliance," Adams quipped. "We'll take the learnings with the move to the cloud and include those changes in the products we ship-so our customers and partners can do private cloud environments."

As examples of the "learnings" from the move to the cloud finding their way into Microsoft products, Adams cited Exchange and Windows Server.

"Exchange 2007 was not built from the ground up to be multitenant, but after the lessons we learned in working in the cloud space, we looked at what we should do with Exchange 2010 and we built it from the ground up to be multitenant. And the same goes for SharePoint and all of our other platform products. And with Windows Server we added another piece to this that allows it to be elastic," she said, speaking of the AppFabric technology Microsoft announced at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles in November.

Regarding the evolving programming model for the cloud, she said, "We're trying to take it up a layer ... so developers can write their apps using PHP, Python, Ruby, Java or whatever. That's really the value of platform as a service and that's where Azure's value is. The government sees the value in traditional infrastructure as a service and they see this as a way to add innovation."

Microsofts Cloud Is Ready to Compete

Meanwhile, Khalidi, who was among the initial handful of Microsoft engineers to come up with the concept for Windows Azure, known as the "Red Dog" team, said the first thing the team did was take a look at all of Microsoft's Internet services and realize that despite several similarities and some differences, the one thing all the efforts had in common was that they all existed in their own silo.

"So we decided to make a platform aimed at addressing that," Khalidi said. "And we knew that same platform could be aimed at the public cloud as well as the enterprise environment. It is important to look at the workloads, the programming model and automation. And, overall, the two basic benefits to consider when moving to the cloud are reducing cost and agility."

As Microsoft gears up for the production release of Windows Azure in January, it does so with confidence that its late entry into the cloud space will offer viable competition to cloud service providers already in the market.

"We feel extremely confident now," Khalid said. "Others may have a head start, but we believe our strategy is a more complete strategy that covers all the way from on-premises to the cloud. We're going to do this with technology, and we're with you all the way."

In an interview about cloud computing in the federal government on the Federal Cloud Blog, Adams said:

"So, if you think about the definition of cloud computing-we can take the definition that NIST [the National Institute of Standards and Technology] has given-and what they've done is really layered it into three different layers. So, you have infrastructure as a service, platform as a service and software as a service-and a very similar way that we think of multi-tier applications. At the infrastructure layer, you have your physical ping, power and pipe, and then on top of that you have your operating system layer.

"In the cloud, we see as a natural evolution of moving to the cloud that you also need a cloud operating system, so that's what Windows Azure is for Microsoft. So, it is Windows Server 2008 with our hypervisor virtualization technology with some engineering modifications to be able to handle the elasticity that's needed to scale cloud apps up and down."

And in another example of Microsoft's interactions with the federal government around cloud computing, Vivek Kundra, federal CIO, joined Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie for the PDC keynote address, pointing to the promise of cloud-based access using Azure to garner future meaning from large, rich data sets. Kundra also announced the NASA Pathfinder contest, co-sponsored by Microsoft, which will encourage the development of tools that promote exploration of and learning from NASA's wealth of Mars images. 

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